What happened: Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif has blamed Israel for the latest explosion at the Natanz nuclear facility.
- Zarif said this morning, “The Zionists want to take revenge because of our progress in the way to lift sanctions… they have publicly said that they will not allow this. But we will take our revenge from the Zionists.”
- According to the New York Times, “Two intelligence officials briefed on the damage said it had been caused by a large explosion that completely destroyed the independent — and heavily protected — internal power system that supplies the underground centrifuges that enrich uranium…. the explosion had dealt a severe blow to Iran’s ability to enrich uranium and that it could take at least nine months to restore Natanz’s production.”
- On Saturday Iran marked their 15th annual “Nuclear Day”. They announced they have begun testing their newest, most advanced IR-9 nuclear centrifuges. The IR-9 is 50 times faster than the first generation, IR-1. The country also announced it has 164 IR-6 centrifuges operating, and is also developing IR-8 centrifuges.
- Yesterday in Israel, Defence Minister Gantz hosted US Secretary of Defence Lloyd J. Austin III. Following their meeting Gantz said, “I emphasised to Secretary Austin, that Israel views the United States a full partner across all operational theatres, not the least- Iran. The Teheran of today poses a strategic threat to international security, to the entire Middle East, and, to the State of Israel. And we will work closely with our American allies, to ensure that any new agreement with Iran will secure the vital interests of the world and the United States, prevent a dangerous arms race in our region and protect the State of Israel.”
Context: Austin’s visit is the first by a senior member of the Biden administration to Israel.
- In Israel it is thought that the US wants to ensure that the return to the nuclear agreement being negotiated in Vienna will not damage Israel’s security. However, the US may also want to reach an understanding that Israel does not sabotage those diplomatic efforts.
- There is an alternative theory, that Israel and the US are coordinated, while the US is leading on diplomatic efforts, the Iranians will only return to the negotiations if they are fearful of further attacks.
- According to security analyst Yoav Limor, commenting on the Natanz incident in Israel Hayom, “If it was deliberate and if committed by Israel and the Mossad, the intent was to send a double message: the first was physical, to cause extensive damage and to delay the nuclear programme; the second was psychological, to show, once again, that not only is Iran vulnerable and breached, this is a signal to the world that Israel will continue to protect its vital interests.”
- Recently there has also been increased tension between Iran and Israel over targeting of ships by both countries. Israel has allegedly targeted several Iranian shipments of oil and weapons, whist Iran has recently sabotaged two commercial ships owned by Israelis. So far the damage seems to be deliberately limited, with no ships sunk, no-one killed or injured. Last week, an Iranian military vessel was targeted in the Red Sea.
- Last July the Natanz site that manufactures advance centrifuges suffered significant damage as a result of an explosion.
- Natanz was also targeted in 2010 by the Stuxnet computer virus. Stuxnet was jointly developed by IDF Intelligence and the National Security Agency in the US. It damaged the control over the centrifuges and caused them to break down without leaving a trace. It operated for close to a year before being discovered.
- Last November Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a leading scientist in Iran’s nuclear programme was assassinated and Iran vowed revenge on Israel.
Looking ahead: It’s not clear how the Biden administration will respond to the latest sabotage, coming at a sensitive time, amid ongoing talks in Vienna.
- Israel hopes to continue discussing details of an agreement with the US. Israel has suggested several areas where the nuclear deal could be improved. These include the expiration date of the agreement (the sunset clause), tighter inspections and restrictions on the development and manufacturing of advanced missiles.
- Israel is braced for an Iranian response, which could come from proxies in Syria or Lebanon. Alternatively Iran could attack Israeli targets or assets outside of Israel.